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The Cape Henry lighthouses are one of my favorite destinations ever. It seems that you are a million miles from anything civilized and no one around for miles. In reality you are just a short drive from the busy tourist destination of Virginia Beach, and also on a military base. Ships from all over the world sail by to some of the busiest ports in Chesapeake Bay and Norfolk. Still the beach is tranquil and you can walk forever searching for treasure & booty. While not gold and jewels, you’ll find an endless supply of seashells, driftwood and other priceless natural treasures. (bring a bag to carry some souvenirs home in). This is also a wonderful place if you happen to be a ship watcher. There is a small gift shop at the base of the original 1792 lighthouse, and with a small (and WELL worth it) fee to climb the spiral staircase to the top. The views are superb. There is no access to the newer 1881 lighthouse at this time, but you have plenty of space to see it from about every angle. Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) runs the original lighthouse (and very successfully I may add) and has requested to be allowed to run the newer 1881 lighthouse. Keep your fingers crossed.
Cape Henry Lighthouses
The original lighthouse of 1792
The Cape Henry lighthouse was built in 1792, and marks the southern entrance to Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. This was the first federally funded lighthouse in the United states, and was authorized by George Washington, at a cost of $17’700. It was constructed from Aquia and Rappahannock sandstone, and came from the same sources that supplied the construction of the White House. The light house measures 26 feet at its base, and 16 feet at the top-and 90 feet to the light, it was built close to the first landing site of the first English settlers of 1607, and is among the oldest remaining lighthouses in the U.S.
Originally the lighthouse was located over 500 yards from the shore, but today that has been shortened less than 250 yards due to shoreline erosion. The original lighthouse suffered damage during the Civil war in, but was repaired in 1863 and remained in use. After a lightning strike in the 1870’s, there was cause for concern of its stability. The tower was re-bricked from the inside, and a spiral staircase replaced the oil soaked wooden stairs. The unfavorable reports of its condition continued yearly until finally in 1878, congress authorized $75’000 to commence work on a new lighthouse immediately.
The 1881 lighthouse
The new lighthouse was finished in December of 1881, with considerable delays. The first lighthouse was then used as a day-mark, and registered as a historic land mark. Made of cast and wrought iron plates, the 157 feet tall lighthouse was the tallest enclosed iron lighthouse in the United States. The lighthouse also contained state of the art fog sirens as well. The new lighthouse is about 100 yards from the original one. Through the years, the new lighthouse would gain the newest advancements in technology. By the 1920’s the light had been converted to electric and was outfitted with one of the first radio-beacon systems. By 1984 the entire operation was fully automated.
The address is 583 Atlantic Ave, Fort Story, VA 23459. This is a short drive from Virginia Beach, and not a terribly long drive from Norfolk VA. Now something you need to be aware of- this is a military base. After 911 no place is easy to get into anymore. You will be asked (adults at least) for proper ID, you will be asked to exit the car and open all doors, hoods, trunks etc. Unless it’s a busy day, this will be less than 5 minutes if you cooperate. The two times I have been there, there was only one car ahead of me. The soldiers have a job to do, and they will do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you are offended by the security check, you should not bother going. They are looking out for everyone’s safety, so please co-operate, the trip is well worth a couple minutes of inconvenience.
Fort story is a 1451-acre military base, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The base was named for Gen. John Patten Story, and the property was given to the US government by the Virginia General Assembly 1914. During it’s time it has served many roles. It was part of the Coast Defenses of Chesapeake Bay during World War I, and just before World War II, the Harbor Defense Command was moved there from Fort Monroe. More war time harbor defense installations were added and after this it was used as a hospital for returning war veterans. After 1946, the various 16” guns were removed and it later became home to the 458th Amphibious Truck Company. There was also a missile battery there until 1974.
This is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. By all means if you are in the region you should really make the trip. There is a board walk to the berms so even a wheelchair confined person could get to view the ocean. Pack a lunch, take a hike, take lots of pictures- you’ll be glad you did.! Enjoy.
In the area
If you are going to be around for a few days, here are a few of the places that we have been to and enjoyed. Each has its own unique qualities, and history.
The Military Aviation Museum
(look for an upcoming feature on this)
Nauticus and the Battleship Wisconsin
Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel
About the Author
I am a life-long resident of the north country, calling Edwards my home.I have always had a passion for the outdoors, and for local history. I recently started this site to share places that have been part of our local history and heritage. I hope you get a chance to hike some of these trails for yourself, and reflect on the rich history of those that walked here before you. And if not, sit back and experience these from where ever you are right now. Either way, enjoy!
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Bibliography & References
Preservation Virginia – https://www.nps.gov/fomr/index.htm
National Park Service– https://www.nps.gov/came/cape-henry-lighthouses.htm
Lighthouse friends .com- http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=449
Virginia Beach .com – https://www.virginiabeach.com/listing/attractions-history/old-cape-henry-lighthouse